Sunday, November 25, 2012

Post-Hurricane Mountain Lakes

Did some scouting yesterday for today's nature walk at Community Park North and Mountain Lakes, beginning at Pettoranello Gardens.

A closer look at the photo shows a great blue heron. We saw two, or four if you count their reflections.

The pine woods up the hill from Pettoranello Gardens looks like a logging scene. Hurricane Sandy was only one of several storms that have been knocking the trees over. They were planted in the 1960s in what had been a farm field. I can't say I've ever seen white pines or Norway spruce growing naturally in this area, where deciduous woods are the norm.

Ash trees (note opposite branching saplings in the foreground) have been massing at the base of the pine trees for years, ready to  take full advantage of the sky that has opened up above them.

The Friends of Princeton Open Space trails committee has led efforts to reopen trails--an incredible job.

A closer look suggests two small yellow creatures running behind my daughter. Hard to tell, though, given the focus.

On the far side of the Tusculum fields, the hurricane pretty much polished off what was left of the woods between Mountain Lakes House and Tusculum. This was mostly a mix of white pines and black locust--again, not tree species that existed here historically. Fortunately, a couple native chestnuts planted here to take advantage of sunny openings have survived and should make the most of the additional sunlight.

Upstream of Mountain Lakes, This Old Bridge took another hit, this time from nearby maple tree. Some years back, the bridge was transported 100 feet downstream by a massive flood, then dragged back into position by the township. State regs would probably make replacing the bridge prohibitively expensive.

At Mountain Lakes itself, things were much more peaceful. A couple young fishermen weren't having any luck, but they didn't seem to mind too much.

The raingarden next to Mountain Lakes House has gone into attractive hibernation.

Every time I look at how evenly the water slips over the upper dam, I think of Clifford Zink, the consulting architectural historian who encouraged the dam restorationists to make the spillway perfectly flat.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Starving Artist Consumes Own Art To Survive

In a previous post, I decried what appeared to be a lack of serious effort exhibited by squirrels this fall in carving our front door pumpkin.

Apparently, the local squirrels read this blog, because soon thereafter the squirrel community sent one of its masters of gnaw to create a more elaborate carving. Rodentopologists who have researched squirrel legends tell me this one-eyed monkey face has deep meanings extending back to when great squirrel nations vied for dominance in what proved a losing battle with primates. Current squirrel populations represent a diaspora from that time.
The next day, however, I grew concerned that something other than aesthetics and traditional expression was motivating the carver. The symbol of the "exploding pumpkin" appears nowhere in squirrel mythology.

It became increasingly clear that a starving artist was at work.
One of the take-home lessens here is that an all-consuming passion is not enough to create enduring art.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Deceptive Age of a Tree

The stumps from a couple oak trees pushed over by Hurricane Fran have remained to ornament Nassau Street, like mortars from the Civil War.
Counting the rings of one, I was surprised to find that, though 3 feet wide at the base, it was only 40 years old.

Translated to the trees we encounter in Princeton's open space, it goes to show how young a mature-looking forest may be, and how some of the woods that feel like they've always been there may in fact have been pastures or farm fields not too many decades back.

In contrast, other woods in Princeton may harbor trees 180 years old, like this slice of an ash on exhibit at the Frist Center on the Princeton University campus. It was sacrificed as part of the stream restoration next to Washington Rd at the university.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nature Walk This Sunday at Mountain Lakes

All are welcome to join a post-Sandy "Turkey Trek" I'll be leading this Sunday at 1:30pm, along trails cleared by FOPOS trail committee volunteers. We'll survey the changes in the woods brought about by the storm, and also visit the dams in all their restored glory. The walk will be accompanied by a TV30 film crew who are putting together a feature on Mountain Lakes. No need to arrive in finest feather. Just look natural.

Meet at Community Park North parking lot, on Mountain Ave. just off 206. Entry to the parking lot is right next to the 57 Mountain Ave driveway that leads up to the Mountain Lakes House. Wear some good walking shoes, and in the meantime, happy thanksgiving to all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Princeton's Mountain Lakes Dam Restoration Story

(Also posted at a story will be told this Thursday, Nov. 15, 7pm, at the Princeton Library community room, about the reservoirs that once provided Princeton with ice in pre-refrigeration days. Engineers identified the need for restoration of the dams as far back as the 1970s, but only when an anonymous donor came forward with several million dollars (eventually totaling 3.5) was the project able to move forward, in 2010. (The donor had also helped to purchase Mountain Lakes back in the 1980s.)

Here's a description of Thursday's event:

"Created as an ice pond in 1884, Mountain Lake gradually filled in with sediment and the severe deterioration of its dams threatened to drain it altogether. Princeton Township engineering staff and consultants review Mountain Lake's ice harvesting history, archaeological discoveries, and the careful rehabilitation over the last two years that has restored the beauty of this National Register site and has preserved it for future generations."

The Mountain Lakes Preserve is one of Princeton's best-kept open secrets. Despite being in the middle of Princeton geographically, Mountain Lakes feels tucked away, accessed down a long driveway at 57 Mountain Ave, not far from town hall, across 206 from the Community Park fields.

You can access a pictorial and descriptive history of the restoration project at this link (scroll to the bottom and work your way up chronologically), but I'll show a few photos here.

The small wooden posts in the foreground of the above photo show where a ramp once conveyed big blocks of ice out of the lake and up into barns that once stood three stories high just below the dam. The barns, insulated with straw, could store ice for up to two years. The ice, of course, was delivered to people's homes to cool their ice boxes, in those more sustainable days before refrigeration became widespread in the 1930s or so.

Mountain Lakes House, built around 1950 and now used for weddings and other events, has a beautiful view of the upper lake and dam.

Dredging of the thick sediment (The 1600 truck loads were taken to a sod farm) during restoration apparently uncovered a rich seedbank of native wetland rushes, sedges and wildflowers that carpeted the lakebeds while the lakes remained drained. Friends of Princeton Open Space board member Tim Patrick-Miller led efforts to rescue some of these plants prior to refilling the lakes. They now make a fine native border along the upper lake.

Native woodland asters flourish along a lakeside trail in an area we cleared of invasive shrubs. All trails are open to the public.

This area too, just below the upper dam, is being managed for native species.

Though the restoration was primarily the work of Princeton township engineers, consultants and the very capable contractor who did the elaborate stonework (done primarily by a man named Wolfgang) and concrete reinforcement needed to restore the original beauty while bringing the dams up to current standards, I was able to contribute to the project in various ways.

As resource manager for Friends of Princeton Open Space, I helped correct some misperceptions about the lakes' original depth, made sure that areas near the dams with rare native plants remained undisturbed, and also pointed out the importance of restoring not only the two main dams, but also the smaller dams just upstream that had served to capture stream sediment before it could reach the two lakes.

Restoration of one of these upstream dams, built in 1950, was made possible by additional funds from the anonymous donor. Now cleaned of seven feet of sediment accumulated in its first 60 years, it should substantially increase the life of the two main lakes.

I also encouraged the township to dig several vernal pools nearby to serve the local frog population. State regulations may have bogged down those plans.

If you haven't been to Mountain Lakes, take a walk out there some day to see the award-winning dam restorations, an occasional great blue heron, "Devil's Cave" at the top of the boulder-strewn slopes of Witherspoon Woods, and maybe even hear the call of a pileated woodpecker. It's one of the finer meetings of nature and culture, wild and tamed, natural and man-made beauty.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Squirrel Carvers Disappoint

I have to admit to some disappointment in the carving the squirrels did on our pumpkin this year. Didn't really show much effort on their part, compared to their past work. But isn't that just so typical of those who are above all critics? Sure, it was easy enough for the squirrels to find flaws in our carvings in previous years, and make their uninvited, radical revisions, but when we gave them a clean slate and dared them to make their own creations, all they could manage is a splotch here and a nibble there.

Surely they didn't lack for training, having practiced on our squash crop all summer long. A more sympathetic interpretation might be that this is the work of an apprentice, the local gnaw master having considered a small pumpkin unworthy of its talents. Or maybe squirrels, like people, have become too rushed and harried to do a pumpkin carving justice anymore.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Thanksgiving Day Nature Walk at Mapleton Preserve

A friend sent me this information about a Thanksgiving Day nature walk just down the road in Kingston. Info below:

Thursday, Nov 22 at 10 am
Mapleton Preserve, 145 Mapleton Road, Kingston, NJ

Join Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands President Karen Linder for a Thanksgiving
Day morning exploration of the Mapleton Preserve. Find out what’s on the menu for
Thanksgiving dinner for the animals and birds at the Preserve, and enjoy the abundance and
subtle beauty of late fall. The program will begin at the Main Office for the D&R Canal State
Park, 145 Mapleton Road, Kingston.

The event is FREE and open to all, but preregistration IS requested. Please call 609-683-0483
to reserve a spot. For more information and directions, see

For more information, call 609-683-0483 or visit  

Directions are available at: 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Hurricane Sandy on Campus

If not for the eye of an observant little girl passing by, I might not have noticed the odd bird foraging in front of the Firestone Library on Princeton University's campus.
 I had gone in search of an internet connection, and found instead what may be a northern bobwhite quail, which a birder friend says may be "a farm escapee or a local bird displaced and disoriented by the storm." It certainly was tame. Other potential identities mentioned were spruce grouse and grey partridge.
 Elsewhere on campus, another evergreen tree was caught by the winds--this one a hemlock--
while the magnificent tulip poplar in front of Prospect House appeared unfazed, despite its high exposure to the gale-force winds. My daughter pointed out how the tree has plenty of room to spread its roots. Another factor is that all of its previous exposures to wind have strengthened it. Trees that haven't swayed in the wind, such as saplings that are staked for many years, or trees growing in dense stands, do not have a chance to develop the same strength.

Note: The website reports 50 trees on campus were blown down by the hurricane.